The Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team.

The Corona del Mar High girls' water polo team. (December 8, 2012)

SANTA BARBARA — Want a sure-fire way to boost the confidence of a high school girls' water polo team?

Send them on the road, way north on Highway 101, to begin the season. Take away three of their starters for the weekend, girls regarded as some of the best prep players in the nation. Oh, subtract another starter for a game, too.

Then have that team beat one of the top teams in CIF Southern Section Division 1.

It happened Saturday, and Corona del Mar was that team coming back down Highway 101 with so much confidence.

The Sea Kings shocked Santa Barbara, 8-6, in a nonleague game between the two CIF Southern Section Division 1 powers at the Dons' pool. Top-ranked CdM again was without co-captain Cassidy Papa and fellow seniors Stephania Haralabidis and Ioanna Haralabidis, who are finishing up play at the FINA Youth World Championships in Australia.

On Saturday they also were missing junior center Marina Coskinas (ACT test). But the Sea Kings (2-0) found a way to beat a full-strength Santa Barbara squad (0-2), the No. 3-ranked team in Division 1.

"It's totally remarkable," CdM Coach Sam Bailey said. "You look at the group that we have out here, and I think it's really unsuspecting to a lot of teams. You've just got to credit the girls for their hard work and their belief in themselves, and their belief in each other. I'm so proud of the girls who came in off the bench and stepped into starting roles. It's awesome. It's really, really awesome."

They were players such as junior Bobbi Hoose, who made her first varsity start in Coskinas' absence. Junior Annie Mortimer and sophomore Grace Morgan also came off the bench to have big field blocks in the fourth quarter. And sophomore Eliza Britt drew a penalty shot and had three steals, which tied her for the team lead with senior Ally McCormick and freshman Maddie Musselman.

"Sam wanted us to play more defensively and focus on that," Mortimer said. "That's what we've been working on a lot in practice with five-on-six, to get up and shot block and don't be timid. We knew that we had to step it up this week, because we were missing a lot of starters."

McCormick was dominant, scoring three goals and playing stellar defense on UCLA-bound senior Kelsey O'Brien, who battled foul trouble and was held scoreless. Musselman also had a breakout performance in her second varsity game.

The lanky 5-foot-9 freshman had a game-high four goals, the three steals and a pair of field blocks before fouling out.

"It's really fun to start as a freshman," Musselman said. "I have all my teammates to support me."

That was true Saturday. Senior Genevieve Weed, normally a defender, played at two meters for CdM, opening things up for her teammates in Coskinas' absence. And her sister, senior co-captain Erica Weed, finished with seven saves in goal.

"Erica played great this whole weekend," said CdM senior Morgan Stewart, who also had a big goal.

Stewart had been struggling with her shot in Friday night's 11-10 win over Dos Pueblos. On Saturday she came through late, after UC Santa Barbara-bound Sophie Trabucco had narrowed Santa Barbara's deficit to one in the fourth quarter.

Stewart reacted to Santa Barbara's zone defense, scoring with 1:34 left to made the score, 8-6. The Sea Kings then survived a Santa Barbara power play on Grace Morgan's field block.

Santa Barbara got the ball back with 40 seconds but O'Brien's shot was wide, and Corona del Mar was able to run the clock out.

CdM had trailed, 2-1, at halftime, staying in it with some big saves by Erica Weed. But the Sea Kings blitzed the Dons with five goals in the third quarter, including four unanswered to open up a 6-3 advantage.

Musselman scored three of the four unanswered goals, including two on spectacular lob shots. One was from about eight meters as the shot clock was running out, and one was cross-cage from a tough angle on the left side.

She also scored on the power play on Weed's pass, then again in the fourth quarter on a nice look from Stewart. CdM converted two of three power-play opportunities, while holding Santa Barbara to two for six.

The times that Santa Barbara couldn't score with the extra player, it was because of field blocks from McCormick, Musselman, Mortimer and finally Morgan.

"Overall, outstanding defensive effort," Bailey said. "Our team's composure on defense was phenomenal."

Sophie Trabucco and Jessica Gaffney led Santa Barbara with three goals each, and Cal recruit Maddie Trabucco made six saves. But Coach Mark Walsh was left to wonder about his team, which has several third-year starters.

"Most of these girls have been starting for two full years, so I thought we'd be a little better than where we're at right now," Walsh said. "But the bottom line is that it doesn't matter how good you are on paper, it matters how well you play in the water. [CdM] did a really good job on their five-man and they field blocked really well. All kudos to them.

" I think everybody that knows anything about water polo would have thought that we win this game pretty easily, and they beat us fairly easily. I give all the credit to Sam and his players."

Walsh said his players perhaps panicked a bit in the third quarter. He took out O'Brien midway through the quarter when she was excluded for the second time.

"But we have to respond to adversity better," Walsh said.

CdM certainly did.

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo